Movie Review: The Upside
American remake of French hit Les Intouchables removes rudeness from the equation and comes up short on conflict, leaving a well-set table that misses the essential mess of life.
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart, Nicole Kidman
Directed by: Neil Burger
Running time: 2 hrs 5 mins
By Katherine Monk
On the upside, just about everything you see on screen is a carefully crafted work of art. The downside of The Upside is what we have to listen to: A script that lacks creative or comic punch, lifted off the page with such thespian courage that the lack of palpable catharsis leaves a knot of pity lodged in the abdomen.
It’s not the reaction you really want from any movie, let alone one about a man in a wheelchair and his unlikely bond with an unemployed ex-con. Yet, what else can you feel when so much potential feels squandered, sacrificed to formula?
Though based on a true story — originally explored in Les Intouchables, the French film from 2011 — The Upside seems to lose something in translation. The very nature of the dynamic between Omar Sy and Francois Cluzet reflected something essentially Parisian. They were rude to each other. Cluzet played Philippe Lacasse, the billionaire paralyzed by a paragliding accident and Omar Sy played Driss, the man from the projects who needs to prove he’s looking for work in order to qualify for benefits. Quite by accident, they end up in a caregiver-client relationship.
Cluzet played it as a brand of Professor Higgins. In the empathetic hands of Bryan Cranston, Lacasse becomes a far more vulnerable character, likeable from the get-go. Similarly for Omar Sy, who wore ribbons of resentment on his broad chest, and brought a stark visual contrast to the tiny grey-haired man in the chair. There was tension in every frame, and filmmakers Olivier Nakache and Éric Toldano rode it all the way to the edge.
The American filmmakers don’t go there. In any real way. They don’t let the characters really push each other. Toning the painful dynamics of race and all brands of accessibility down to a dull ache, Jon Hartman’s script and Neil Burger’s (The Illusionist, Limitless) direction lose a lot of what was under the French version’s hood: A revved-up metaphor for society fuelled by ambient distrust of the Other.
The Upside goes light and hopeful, in the way Hollywood usually chooses to go, but it doesn’t feel entirely real, despite the brilliant performances from the entire cast. Including Kevin Hart. Overcoming what always felt like a sticky need to be liked, the comedian comes to the plate with pure intentions — and a few truly honest moments in the part of Dell, an ex-con looking to land some work and win back the affection of his estranged wife and son.
The Upside goes light and hopeful, in the way Hollywood usually chooses to go, but it doesn’t feel entirely real, despite the brilliant performances from the entire cast. Including Kevin Hart.
Hart brings a hint of edge to Dell, but the script plays to his brand — allowing him to go broad in a catheter-insertion scene, and use a wise-ass and whiney tone at will. To his credit, he keeps his schtick on the ice, and uses some touch to land a few winners.
For the most part, the centrepiece of the film is Cranston’s bitter-sweetness beneath a persistently brave and stoic face. After experiencing the full transformation of Walter White, it’s a joy to stare into Cranston’s dancing blue eyes — which get full-screen treatment, since the rest of his body is a the big anchor.
Philippe can only experience the joy of life by looking around him, by engaging with others and the spaces that both impede and free him. He is trapped, despite his social freedom and privilege, sitting in his Fifth Avenue Penthouse. Dell is trapped too, by social boundaries and access to the economic ladder, despite his full physical ability.
This is the axis of truth that makes the whole story so compelling. The production team inserts elements of this awareness into the set itself, including a room of works by women — Helen Frankenthaler, Mary Cassat and Lee Krasner — and a feast of other notable works, from other notable outsiders. Philippe doesn’t talk about his art collection, or the Calder mobile that reminds him of his paragliding accident.
All the clues are there, even the presence of Nicole Kidman as Philippe’s loyal executive aide, a woman in spectacles with a kind smile and an efficient manner. Surprisingly, she’s the one who has the most comic chemistry with Hart, not only because she plays the “ump” calling his strikes and therefore the most immediate foil, but because the two actually, weirdly, click.
There’s a nurturing respect, the kind that brings out the best of Hart’s comedy — something warm, fuzzy, and recognizably human. Some good moments happen, but there’s no magic outside the performances themselves. The movie as a whole never rises to a crescendo because there’s not enough conflict on the page. Like the walls of Philippe’s apartment, The Upside feels a little too flat and white, but undeniably strewn with talent.
Main image: Bryan Cranston, Nicole Kidman and Kevin Hart star in The Upside. Photo by David Lee courtesy of Elevation Pictures.
THE EX-PRESS, January 11, 2019